CR: What are your job titles?
Ben Cowell: Head of 3D, along with Darren Price.
Reece Millidge: Officially, Head of 2D animation and compositing.
CR: So Ben was overseeing the building of the sets and the lighting of the various scenes and Reece you were in charge of animating it all?
RM: In a nutshell, yes. The 3D animatic took up a large part of my time while the sets and characters were being built. I had a 2D plan of the city layout and action to work from, which directors Adam and Alan (Smith & Foulkes) worked out alongside their storyboards. It was put together using very basic shapes and images and simple character bipeds to act as character placeholders. So at whatever stage a scene was at, we could render and composite a work in progress which could be a mixture of temporary blocks and plains with fully animated characters, hair cuts, cola bubbles and all. This way, the directors could get a good feel of the commercial as it evolved. The camera angles and movements were refined over and over during the process – we even restyled main character Ray’s hair cut on a weekly basis! There were two of us on effects and about six animators working on over 60 unique characters. When each character or effect was signed off by the directors, Ben and three others would take care of lighting and rendering them before handing over the footage to the two compositors.
CR: How many people worked on this with you guys on modelling and animation? Over what time period?
BC: In total I think there was a team of 30 people. We like to hire multiskilled 3D people, so many of our modellers ended up lighting and rendering the shots at the end of the process. Giving artists some ownership of their part of the project always gets better results than handing out tasks in a piecemeal fashion. We worked on it for about three and a half months plus the two weeks of pitch work.
CR: So how did you break down and coordinate the production of all the different elements of the film?
BC: The city plan drawn up by Reece and the directors became a detailed city model which we divided up into numbered blocks and then allocated the block modelling to individuals. These five modellers then used reference photographs and the concept artwork to build and texture high resolution sets. This process took about two months, but while it was being worked on, we could use our low resolution set to animate characters on. At this time Darren Price was overseeing the ten-strong character crew as they completed the modelling, texturing and rigging of our cast of 60 characters. They had to be completed before we were able to begin animating them, which is why the character team was larger.
CR: Concept artwork? Was this produced at a pitch stage?
BC: Yes, the pitch was far more involved than usual, we worked with a small team of 3D people over an intensive two weeks to produce two high resolution stills to sell the idea of the change of lighting and mood over the course of the commercial. This process was actually really useful, as many of the ideas, models and lighting schemes made it over into the final advert. The final shot of the commercial and the pitch image are remarkably similar.
CR: Was every single job that needed doing locked down from the get-go?
RM: There’s only so much you can plan ahead with an animatic as you can only see the bare bones of the action, so there has to be a little room for adapting cameras to fit finished animated performances and working out the interaction or contact between characters and backgrounds. For instance, there’s a scene with a tough looking gang on a street corner who run away when they spot Ray driving towards them. After going through the scene with the directors it was decided to have one of the gang members scrabble over a fence. So Ben had to rig the fence before I could get this guy over it while it rattled about. Sometimes it feels criminally unjustified when the tiniest of details last for a split second or get lost in the action, but it’s these small details that add solidity and believability to an artificial world. The final scene was a mammoth task for everyone involved but it really made it feel like a city when we dropped in the 600 dancing extras. These were actually done by one animator as one dance sequence with one character. This animation was then merged into other characters to add variety and then spread all over the city with small variations offset in their timing. All the main characters however were individually animated with their own unique dance routines.
CR: How did you achieve such natural movement of CG characters, especially the dance moves?
RM: The directors spent a day with two choreographers filming them doing different dance moves for different characters and also doing some of main character Ray’s moves. The resultant footage made great reference material for the animators. Some complicated sequences, such as Ray catching and swinging the bag, removing his jacket and guiding the hobo into the car, benefited hugely from having this footage.
CR: So how do directors get to direct the action when it’s in the hands of a specialist production team like the one working on this?
BC: Nexus being a production company with an in-house studio makes a huge difference. Rather than having a director come to visit once or twice a week, we all get to sit in the same studio and so get the directors’ feedback instantly. A project this big needs as much consistency as possible, and I really think we’d have taken twice as long and produced a lesser commercial if we’d been in a separate studio to Adam and Alan.
CR: Did any of the guys working on the ad have a background in computer game design?
BC: Actually, yes, Wayne Kresil who modelled all the vehicles in the film. His games background was really useful when we were trying to capture an essence of the limitation of games technology without making everything really basic and ugly. 2006 will see the release of the PS3 and XBOX 360, which will probably mark another leap in the quality of computer graphics. The quality of Videogame became a case of what looked and felt right for the film, rather than simply being a reference that just gamers would enjoy.